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Retaliation Review

May 11, 2015

In the past, I have denounced films on this blog for not having an engaging enough narrative to back up their action sequences or having action sequences that had too much shaky cam, both of which removed my ability to engage in the action as it was shown. However, I’m about to praise the film Retaliation from 1968 for having both these issues. How is that fair? Does anything separate it from any number of Luc Besson produced wannabes?

Let’s bounce back for a minute. Retaliation is a Japanese film from the Nikkatsu in the 1960s. The crime films made by the studio were generally b-films that directors such as Yasuharu Hasebe or Seijun Suzuki could churn out quickly. Suzuki himself would casually quickly spew out four or so a year, but what made his so special was a matter of peppering the simple plots with all the energy, pace and strangeness you could desire on a tight budget. Suzuki’s Branded to Kill features men who become turned on by the smell of rice and feature women with dead birds hanging from their rear-view mirrors.They borrowed from James Bond films: gangsters, machoness and noir cool to create a delerious cocktail that made them unique creations. Suzuki has already earned his cult status with fans like John Woo,Jim Jarmusch and John Zorn. Seeing Suzuki’s films makes you wonder what the other films are like from Nikkatsu. Are they useless derivative junk with Suzuki being their only real diamond in the rough?

Outside Suzuki, Nikkatsu’s action films have been more written about about then watched. Retaliation is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe in 1968 and has recently been released on blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video. It’s been screened on rare occasions at some Asian film festivals, but has only received an English-subbed home video release in 2015. The film, as of writing, this has less than 50 votes on IMDb. I hope this changes, as this film, when approached with the knowledge of Nikkatsu’s history, is quite a firecracker.

Japanse film poster Retaliation (1968)
Film poster for Retaliation

Retaliation was made quickly, with scripts written as the film was in the middle of shooting. This could lead to some messy narrative confusion, but actually allows the filmmakers freedom to go as far as they want when it comes to camera angles and pure cinematic staging. This film is about a gangster named Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi), who is released from prison and finds himself lent out to another Yakuza clan, who are interested in purchasing land to increase their own grasp of the area. This makes the film’s original title I Own Your Turf! more apt. He meets with Jo Shisido’s character, Hino, who is forced to work with him – an act he cannot really sink his teeth into as Jiro had killed his relatives several years in the past. Shootouts between gang members and double-crosses ensue!

The film’s plot is a bit crude, with perhaps one too many characters. The fact that Jo Shishido’s character is more interesting than Kobayashi’s is an issue, as he has a motive for revenge while Kobayashi’s role is limited to his relationship with Meiko Kaji’s character and his old gangster leader who returns to the story towards the end. What shapes this film into something more interesting is how it’s shot. There is lots of hand-held camera work and the crew is quite playful when trying to illustrate the action. Take the opening scene, where we have a quick duel between Jo and Akira.

retaliation-train-fight

Normally, I’d leap at the chance at the point out scenes so obviously constructed to hide what’s going on, but peeking through the bushes and spying between train carts gave me this “you are there” feeling that I feel like shaky-cam developers like Paul Greengrass are trying to pull off in his Bourne series. It works here, I believe, because I can still see follow the action by seeing who’s attacking who and what they are attempting to do, but am given this in a new perspective of the “not having the best seat in the house” type camera. This type of camera trickery isn’t set strictly to the action scenes either and is often deployed in bizarre fashion such as a dinner meeting between gangsters where an argument erupts from a bird’s eye point of view. I’m not going to spoil any other scenes, but let’s say they involve spot light lit battles and one surprisingly brutal bathroom brawl.

If there’s sour parts, it’s the obligatory scenes of nudity and rape that began coming up in the 1970s. These scenes feel tossed in and only suggest that those bad guys we saw earlier are, guess what, bad! I know this is coming from a man who later directed films with titles as explicit as Raping!. What could that one be about. . .

I’m getting far off topic, but I’d suggest that if you like your films with the cool vibe of the John Woo and Johnnie To and just want to be swept into unique and kinetic camerawork and violent action scenes, please seek out Retaliation. For those requiring a new narrative or political importance in your crime sagas, I’m sure there are some Jean-Pierre Melville films you haven’t seen yet.

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Thunderball Blu-ray Review

April 29, 2011

Hover over this image for immense joy.

Time to take a last minute advantage of a blogalong deal with The Incredible Suit’s attempt at world blog domination. Want more details? Read about it here. (Warning: It’s in British English which I assume is slightly different and therefore inferior to my Canadian English). I sadly missed out on all opportunities to blog about the first three films which are sometimes known amongst fans as “the good ones” but I still want to take a shot at reviewing a Bond flick. So I’m stuck watching the two-hour-plus of Thunderball.

On paper, Thunderball should’ve been a lot better. It was directed Terence Young who directed Dr. No and From Russia with Love. Young’s not really a name spoken to often outside the Bond fan base, but he also made the great 1960s thriller Wait Until Dark and a film I haven’t seen called Soleil rouge that has the strange cast of Alain Delon, Ursula Andress, Toshirô Mifune, and Charles Bronson. It looks pretty bad, but that’s what I expect from a film where samurai’s fight euro-cowboys.

Outside having a good Bond director, we have other goodies to boast the appeal of the film. Thunderball had the highest budget of any Bond film to this point and was the first one shot at 2.35:1. This film is mint looking on blu and you can really appreciate the details of these sets since the image is an obvious step up from any other format this film’s been released on. I could watch the introductory scene of the attractive anonymous ladies swooshing around to the sound of Mr. Tom Jones on repeat for a good while. If you don’t care for Tom Jones, consider yourself lucky you didn’t get that other Bond theme made for Thunderball. Country singer Johnny Cash did his own Thunderball theme which was released on a few compilation albums and not used for the film. Works for me as the song would be more appropriate for some sort of underwater-western.


Johnny Cash sings Thunderball. Bizarre.

The Blu-ray is an easy recommendation if you love yourself some Thunderball. The Blu-ray contains all the bonus features from the 2006 Ultimate Edition disc and still has the confusingly titled menus called “minisitry of propaganda” and “007 mission control” so good luck finding what you are looking for. Cause, y’know, that three-second TV advert for the film on the disc will change your life I’m sure.

As for the film itself, it does feel like a drop in quality compared to Bond’s previous missions. The James Bond films at this point were still popular (Thunderball was the highest grossing Bond film and praised by critics in both the UK and US on it’s initial release), but I feel that a few decades later that the film is only good for a few selected moments and gets tiresome in the middle section. The good bits in the film for me are the action scenes and some of the underused cheesy spy gadgets.

Despite how they are edited and sped-up, I like the action scenes such as the first prop-oriented fight scene involving Bond dropping entire shelves on a knife-wielding cross-dressing villain. I even love the back-stretcher scene which never fails to bring a smile to my face in it’s utter goofiness. I don’t know why they would create a device like this that can be set at lethal speeds, but I don’t really question much that happens in the Bond universe. If Bond wants to escape five feet away in a Jet Pack than that’s fine by me, too bad the rest of the movie is set underwater. Some of the gadgets that Bond gets from Q are boring as they aren’t flashy are there to just fill potential plot-holes. No one cares that Bond is popping pills so he can be tracked later on or that he has a camera that can take pictures of the Disco Volante underwater. BORING.

Summary of Gadgets in Thunderball
Fig 1: How to spot gadget quality in Thunderball

For the plot, the film begins to feel like a chore around the time the Avro Vulcan is hijacked and sinks in the water. It leads to a series of pretty tedious and episodic events that don’t advance the plot a great deal. It’s great that we get to see Domino in her black-and-white bikini and it’s fun to see Bond tossed in a pool full of live sharks, but do we have to sit through the rest of the plodding story to get to these parts? The rest of the underwater scenes go on for an eternity. Were they ever interesting? Even technically? You can get all these Connery-based spy scenes done better and just as many attractive Bond girls without these water scenes in the earlier films and without all the filler.

I’m not the first person to trash the underwater scenes, but I am someone who is actually fond of the final scene involving various spear-men attacking each other underwater. This scene is a surprisingly violent, involving lots of kills within the seven minutes. Being underwater also stops the amount of puns that Bond must be aching to deliver as he’s killing the SPECTRE agents off one by one. I like this scene, but I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea as it’s a bit chaotic. Terence Young didn’t like this scene either. He didn’t even like the whole film.

James Bond Terrence Young

Not a great sign when the creator himself is trashing the film. If you didn’t like the earlier Bond films, than Thunderball will not change your mind. If you are someone who is willing to get up and do laundry or something in the middle part than you won’t miss too much and can find Thunderball to be a moderately enjoyable piece of sixties spy cinema. You can do much worse in the Bond series. How much worse? Check back in a few months when I get around to reviewing Never Say Never Again.

Sources: 1 | 2

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